Rock is dead! Or so says Gene Simmons.
“Gene Simmons can kiss my ass,” says Tuk Smith, the charismatic leader of the rock and roll gang that is the Biters.
“Even though I agree with him around a lot of points, nobody needs to hear that kind of negativity about rock,” he says. “There’s such a monoculture in rock in the mainstream. But rock isn’t dead in the underground by any means. So that’s not a fair comment.”
There’s a lot wrong with the music industry right now, but that’s only if you’re looking at the surface. As we here at 50third work hard at uncovering, there’s also a lot that’s right – you just have to dig a little. It just seems as though rock and roll doesn’t have a seat at the big-league table right now. As I see it Atlanta’s Biters could be the saviors, and even if they’re not invited to the table, they may just crash the party anyway.
In 1974 music critic Jon Landau saw a young Bruce Springsteen open for Bonnie Raitt and wrote: “I saw my rock and roll past flash before my eyes. I saw something else: I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”
We’ve got to get Landau out to a Biters show so that he may be obliged to repeat his prediction for a new generation.
Like that 25-year-old Springsteen, the Biters play rock and roll with youthful abandon – their music is rich with 70s power pop, New York street punk, and classic glam. You may be able to play spot the influence song by song, specifically The Boys, Cheap Trick, T. Rex, and Thin Lizzy, but you can’t dispute the authenticity of what the Biters are doing.
Their lineup is rock-solid – Tuk has a huge stage presence and along with guitarist Matt Gabs, the two present a formidable twin guitar attack. Drummer Joey O’Brien is an animal on drums and beats the crap out of his kit, and Philip Kross holds down the bottom end on bass and the high-end on perfect harmonies.
The crazy thing is, as good as the Biters are on record they are even better live. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small dive bar in the dead of winter with 50 people watching; these guys play like they’re at Madison Square Garden in front of 20,000 crazed fans. They’re tight, choreographed, and loud – they put on one hell of a rock and roll show.
“Crowds are always hit or miss. Most of our shows are rocking, but even if there’s a small crowd, we play like everybody matters,” Tuk states. “You gotta stay positive. We fucking love what we’re doing and hope that it comes across.”
If you’ve been to a Biters show you’ll understand when I say that the magic is there. The first time I saw them live, the guys were walking around the club before the show wearing jean vests or leather jackets emblazoned with a three-eyed tiger on the back and crew passes hanging off their jeans. At first, you might think – WTF guys, you’re in a small town dive bar, playing in front of maybe 100 people…but when they hit the stage you get it.
“I think that if some of our songs came out in the late 70s, early 80s, I don’t feel like we would be having this conversation…we live in a different era.”
Seeing the Biters perform is like rediscovering the buzz you had when you’re young and immersed in rock and roll. Remember when you had a favorite band? You’d join their fan club, sew their patch on your jean jacket, draw their logo all over your school books, play air guitar in the basement to their songs, and wear out the record by listening to it multiple times a day. That’s what the Biters are all about.
“Kiss, the New York Dolls, the Ramones – they started, they grew up poor, they had a chance and built it up,” Tuk says. “These days that doesn’t happen. All the big rock groups today are manufactured. Right now there’s no young Axl Rose, or Johnny Rotten, or Keith Richards in the limelight for being rock and roll. It’s all guys with beards playing fucking acoustic shit. There’s not a lot of danger to it. Look, I like Simon and Garfunkel, but they were street-tough as hell and they’d whoop that Bon Iver’s ass. Sure the world needs a Bon Iver but we’re lacking the opposite, that’s all I’m saying.”
It’s clear that Tuk loves talking about the Biters and rock and roll in general; we could’ve talked about music for hours. He’s animated, talkative, and passionate when asked about whether the Biters can reach a bigger audience.
“I think that if some of our songs came out in the late 70s, early 80s, I don’t feel like we would be having this conversation,” he says. “We live in a different era. Shit certainly is different and people’s ears have changed. I’m not ignorant to the question of how we’re going to bring rock and roll to this generation. But with some label support, a good song that makes it cool to have guitars again, I think it could definitely happen again.”
The Biters output so far has been a controlled release of consistently stellar EPs and singles each overflowing with street rock and roll and bold sweet hooks.
“We put out EPs instead of albums because we didn’t have label support and we could get more music out there faster and because it costs less to record that way. We do everything on our own,” Tuk says.
Along with solid punk and rock chops, their ability to deliver massive pop hooks is out of this world. A song like Restless Hearts from the new record should be the feel good hit of the summer of 2015 if there’s any justice.
We could find out this summer as the Biters release their first full-length record – Electric Blood on Earache Records – a worldwide deal that was announced recently. The reaction from the Biters-sphere was indicative of the aura that this band has created – Biters fans and supporters couldn’t be happier for them. They are one of the hardest working bands around and the fact that it took this long for the Biters to be signed by a label is mind-boggling.
“We’ve played for a lot of major labels. None said “no”. But none of them have said “yes”. They always like us, they love what we’re doing, but they’re like – who are we going to market this to? Rock isn’t cool.” Tuk says. “They’re like: we can only sell songs by some monosyllabic idiot on autotune, doing a nursery rhyme chant over some beat made in a fucking closet on a computer.”
This statement isn’t too far off what Simmons said, but Gene was also reflecting on the lack of generation-defining rock artists since the 80s, and this is where Tuk falls in line with the Kiss legend.
“If I was 11 years old, or 13, or whatever, and I want to get into rock, I’m probably going to start with what’s available,” Tuk says. “So it’s going to be like – the Foo Fighters. But those dudes have been around for like 25 fucking years. I don’t want to say anything bad, but they’re like Dads. If I was a little kid and I want to be rebellious and dangerous, I’m not going to look to Dave Grohl as the savior, I’m probably going to be drawn to some bad-ass rapper dude. So if there was some of that danger and coolness back in rock and roll, I think that kids would be into it.”
Musically the Biters aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel; in fact you can listen to their songs and probably pick out the influences pretty quickly, but it doesn’t matter. These guys are genuine; they live and breathe rock and roll and it’s obvious. Their sound is classic and timeless because they don’t just draw a musical influence from the generational rock and punk bands; they’ve made it a lifestyle. They even look like rock stars used to look.
“The aesthetic of the band is not anti-anything,” Tuk says. “Rock and roll is audio/visual to me. It always has been. Of course, I think grunge needed to happen because the stuff that was going on in rock and roll in the late 80s was atrocious. It’s like what’s happening now with pop music.”
“But even these days something’s really missing that all of my favorite bands had – from the Rolling Stones, Cheap Trick, The Beatles, the Ramones, The Clash, Mötley Crüe. Fuck man even The Replacements had a look. I like that about rock and roll.”
It’s clear that the aforementioned bands are a source of inspiration for the Biters, particularly for Tuk and his songwriting, and while there are a multitude of bands influenced by Cheap Trick and AC/DC, the Biters also embrace a punk nuance from the 70s. It’s an old-school approach to music and life derived from people like Stiv Bators, Johnny Thunders, and Sonny Vincent. Guitarist Matt Gabs even toured with Vincent while the Biters were on a break.
“It was boss!” Gabs says. “It was like going to Rock And Roll University and then some. There were a lot of long rides and we’d say – Hey Sonny, what was it like being in a band with Scott Asheton? And he would just go.”
It’s a deep pool to draw from when considering how the Biters sound came about. All musicians are influenced by the music they heard growing up, either from friends or through parents. Tuk’s musical education isn’t much different from anyone who grew up in the 70s – though he was born much later. His Dad listened to all the big players of the 70s – Boston, The Eagles – all that classic rock hit list, but his Mom may be responsible for the electricity that runs through his veins.
“My Mom’s two favorite bands are AC/DC and Tom Petty,” he says. “She told me that when she was pregnant with me she went to see AC/DC and Angus was on top of someone’s shoulders, running through the crowd, dripping sweat all over people. She said his sweat seeped into her pores and went inside of me.”
Photo © Jackie Roman
“It’s really fucking tough right now. This is where you separate the men from the boys I guess…we still do this, and we’re not making a lot of money, we’re fucking living like animals out here but you gotta keep it together. You gotta stay focused. If you go out and party too much you’ll fail. I’ve been there.”
The classic rock of the 60s, 70s, and 80s permeates through the Biters sound, but the punk ethos that punches through at a Biters live show comes from Tuk’s own exploration. Touching on how guys so young can embody the spirit of a Johnny Thunders or Joey Ramone, Tuk explains that when he became a teenager he rebelled and fell heavily into punk rock – mostly hardcore, all the early California bands like Black Flag, and the spikey-haired British imports.
“I played in several hardcore bands and then I heard the band Special Duties covering a song by The Boys,” he says. “That was the first time I heard The Boys. Then it’s the New York Dolls, then the Hollywood Brats, Slaughter and the Dogs, The Clash. Then I remember thinking that man, Mick Jones from the Clash is so fucking cool and his favorite band is Mott the Hoople. You know you just trace the roots. So in my record collection, you’ll find – Black Flag, and Boston, and The Exploited, and Tom Petty, whatever – I like it all.”
The bygone rock and roll and punk influence doesn’t end with the music. In his late teens, Tuk embraced the self-destructive rock and roll spirit that has seen many talented people – like Johnny Thunders and Stiv Bators, taken way too early. His first serious band – the Heart Attacks was a crazed whirlwind adventure (a story that has been told many times – you can look it up).
“When I was in the Heart Attacks, we were signed to Hellcat Records, I was just the lead guitar player, I wasn’t singing, but that was just a fucking mess,” he says. “When we broke up, I wanted to start another band and I was like, I can’t find anybody, so I decided I was going to learn how to sing and write songs. That was Poison Arrows, the first band where I was the front man. So I’ve only been writing songs for like 6 years. This is still new to me. I never really wrote real songs – I was a lead guitarist, so I wrote guitar stuff,” he says. “Only in high school I wrote some really early stupid anti-everything punk shit.”
However, the destructive lifestyle continued and after a tour with Poison Arrows ended in tragedy, Tuk went home to pull himself together.
“I finally broke, and I really wanted to get my shit together music-wise,” he says. “I want to be able to write. I want to be creative. I think a lot of my journey in getting to being on the higher path, as I always call it, was me wanting to become the person represented in the image of what I wanted to be. I want to be super creative and I want to write amazing songs and that began by trying to wipe my karmic debt clean. It’s hard pulling yourself back up when bad shit is happening and you’re living in a dark world. It comes out – you write dark stuff.”
“You know my other band the Heart Attacks was a drug party, and I just didn’t want to deal with it. I just really wanted a clean slate without any of the drugs, or the bullshit, or the tomfoolery. I really wanted to start over. That’s when the Biters started. Then when I started writing and had to change my brain, and think and view the world as a writer, I began to realize that I loved it.”
With his karmic debt wiped clean and his batteries recharged the Biters have become one of the hardest working bands out there since 2009. They tour relentlessly; I’ve seen them three times in less than two years in my small Ontario city and hopefully, the worldwide deal with Earache Records sees them get some payback for all the hard work and dedication to their craft.
“It’s really fucking tough right now. This is where you separate the men from the boys I guess,” Tuk laughs. “We still do this, and we’re not making a lot of money, we’re fucking living like animals out here but you gotta keep it together. You gotta stay focused. If you go out and party too much you’ll fail. I’ve been there.”
Listening to the band’s entire six-year output in one sitting proves that although there is a progression to their sound and songwriting, the reverence for rock and roll and punk is unwavering. The new songs are confident, big and bold and they sound unmistakably like the Biters. Perhaps that’s one of the harbingers of success and longevity – that as a band they’ve managed to dig in their heels and stay true long enough that there now is a “Biters” sound.
“To me the look that I like, and the sound – it’s timeless,” Tuk says. “No one is ever going to look back at me and laugh. I’m not going to be auto-tuned, I’m not going to do EDM or doing any of the shit that people are going to be made fun of for. Picture if you were 10 or 13, you’ve never not heard auto-tuned vocals. Everything on the radio is perfect. You’ve always had the Internet, you’ve always had a computer, and you’ve always had instant gratification. You don’t care who sings or plays what. First, there was the LP jacket, then I had the CD booklet, they don’t have any of that now.”
“They’re so used to hearing the drums in perfect time, the vocals in perfect pitch – if they hear an Alice Cooper song they think – that sounds like shit.”
I get a sense that the Biters are on the cusp of something big. There’s an energy around them, an aura if you will. They carry themselves with a rock and roll swagger and the drive and spirit of all those generation-defining bands – Cheap Trick, Thin Lizzy, T. Rex, Van Halen, KISS. You know, the bands that made a thousand kids want to be rock stars.
“With the new record, I’ve been just busting the fuck out of songs,” Tuk says. “These are the best lyrics I’ve written, giant hooks, more attitude. I’m just in a better place, more mature, more confident in myself. I don’t give a fuck if it’s popular to have this hairstyle or play this kind of music. It’s empowering to me. It’s not even a “fuck you”, I just love it and I believe in rock and roll – real rock and roll so much.”
The Biters’ debut record “Electric Blood” will be released on Earache Records worldwide on July 10, 2015.
NOTE: The Biters went on indefinite hiatus in 2018. Check out Tuk’s latest project here: TUK SMITH AND THE RESTLESS HEARTS